Thursday, July 19, 2007

since last month...

Okay, so maybe I lied, or was misled, or misguided, or erred. Or maybe, and most likely, fate stepped in and said, "Aliyana, life is good, really good, and it's never what it seems, but hey, it's better that way, so enjoy it and stop asking questions."

So there's no bus from Padum to Manali. No, there's not even a road from Padum to Manali. So in all fairness, how could I have considered taking such a bus on such a road?

Of course, this information was only imparted to me on the fourth day of the trek, at Lakhong, on a green patch in the desert, 4700 meters high, after walking up to 5100 and standing on glacier snow by a glacier lake and then descending to a river which could only be crossed by wading through knee-deep. Helmut, a Latvian guy we met, asked me as I stretched out exhausted, "so what are you doing after Padum?" "Taking a bus to Manali," I answered. He shook his head, amused. And thus the revelation was made.

I made quick calculations in my head and realized that in order to make my flight on July 17 I would need not only to leave the trek a day early, but would then need to spend six straight days on a bus from Padum to Kargil to Leh to Manali to Delhi.

Right. So I'll be back on July 24, instead.

The last few weeks have been some of the best and most invigorating of my entire trip. How else can I describe walking through the most remote place I have ever been, filled with the most unbelievable scenery ever laid before my eyes, raging rivers, giant desert mountains and snow-capped peaks, meeting amazing local people who showed me such kindness and generosity and reminded me of the inherent goodness of humanity?

Tiferet, Amelie and I started our trek in the middle of nowhere, continued on to the edge of nowhere, and found ourselves back in the middle of a different nowhere ten days later. Or rather, we began in a town called Darcha in Lahaul, about seven hours north of Manali. The bus ride from Manali was fun, excellent scenery and the best road signs I have ever seen (including "Better Mister Late than Never" and "Better Careful than Roadkill"). We had a stove, sleeping bags, a compass, maps and some pasta. We planned to hike the ten-day trek alone, without a guide or a porter, though we knew that there were three days toward the middle that we would want some help.

Truth be told, we knew very little about this trek. For instance, we thought the trail ran alongside a road, but, as we've just learned, no such road exists. Instead, the trail ran deep through the valley, over mountains, and through the remote desert. We also thought there would be places to stay and eat along the way, which for the most part, there were, except for those three crucial days toward the middle when both a tent and sufficient food were more than necessary. We also didn't know just how many times we would cross rivers without bridges, or how tired we would have been after 20 km of walking per day with a full pack.

Lucky for us, or maybe because of fate, we didn't have to find out any of these lessons the hard way. After a relaxing shabbat in Darcha (where we mainly ate and walked, and met an amazing woman who gave us chai and boiled potatoes for lack of biscuits and just smiled at us a lot for lack of shared language) we headed up toward the trail. Our compass was really helpful, as was Tiferet's knowledge of how to use it, but the trail itself was hard to follow. With our packs, we scaled up the steep side of a hill after finding ourself on the wrong trail (I am not exaggerating, we had to scramble) and finally found ourself on the right route.

Darcha is the last "big" town (I am using that word lightly) in Lahaul, the northern part of Himachal Pradesh where green meets rock and eventually turns into the remote Zanskar range of southern Ladakh. On the first day we walked through this drastic geographical change. We met Helmut and his friend Edmund in the early afternoon. They were shocked that we weren't prepared with 800 grams of food a day. That we had no tent. That we had no sunglasses. Edmund was wearing water-proof gaiters over his gore-tex boots. Helmut had two walking sticks and butt warmer made of styrofoam. They had two porters and seven horses. I had what could best be described as "light hiking shoes" with airholes to beat the heat.

When we got to first campsite, about four hours later, we learned that Helmut and Edmund had already informed everyone there of our lack of preparedness. They were worried. I lay down to watch the bags, while Amelie and Tiferet went to talk to an Israeli family who had apparently made it to the pass halfway through the trek and then returned because of bad weather. Amelie and Tiferet came back and told me that the family's porter had extra food and extra horses and would take us over the difficult pass for a total 1,000 rupees a day, all included. Sounded good.

So that's how we met Nanda Lal, our undersized one-eyed horseman and Darshant, his eternally smiling assistant. Only it turned out that their English was slightly slight, and they were not actually the family's former porters, but rather Edmund and Helmut's current porters. And so a party of 14, including seven horses, two porters and five happy-go-lucky trekkers, was born. At first, our days were short, but as we delved deeper into Zanskar they became more difficult, longer, and all things considered, so much better.

Unfortunately, I stopped eating hot food around the third day, when the smell of dal and rice for breakfast and dinner, breakfast and dinner, brreeeaakkfast and... well, I couldn't really handle it anymore. Really. I had to force the third breakfast down, and even then it came back up, so I decided I would be better off eating dry chapatis in the morning and dry pasta at night, with plenty of biscuits, dried fruit, nuts, and of course, water, in between. And hard candies. Edmund and Helmut fed me porridge one morning, but for about three days, I didn't really eat so well. My nausea wasn't helped by the knowledge that the dishes were never washed properly, and that Darshant washed his hands in said dishes after making the chapatis. For some reason, though, I made it to the end of the trek with full energy, if a little skinnier.

The sleeping part was also a little difficult. Our tent, which we shared with Nanda Lal and Darshant, smelled of horse, dal and rice, which would have been okay, but Zanskar is also really, really cold at night, and my sleeping bag (a "North Fake") just didn't cut it. I fell asleep at around 10 P.M. every night, and then promptly woke at about 3 A.M., when the coldness reached its peak. Then I would stay awake until about 6, when Darshant, smiling, would wake up to begin preparing the dal and rice.

Food and sleep aside, I have never felt so alive. This was a trek with purpose, to get from one place to another, from the last roadpoint to the first. We met a group of Zanskaris on the second day making the trek to Manali (of course, we wondered why they didn't take a bus. Yeah.), and realized that Zanskaris really are some of the nicest in the world. We walked up to Shingu La, 5100 meters high surrounded by glacial wonder, and then realized that Zanskaris really have some of the nicest land in the world. Then we walked down into a desert, surrounded by wonder, simple magical wonder. Like the day we walked for hours and hours in the hot desert, only to turn around to see the same beautiful and majestic mountain in exactly the same place and at exactly the same size at the same distance it had been hours before. We were all Alices in Wonderland. Each village we walked through was beautiful, a green oasis in the desert, where villagers have learned and mastered the art of irrigating their land to grow trees, grass, and vegetables. We met a fledgling school run by Czech volunteers along the way, in Kargyak, and another more developed school, run by young Ladakhis, in Ichar.

After learning that the road to Padum was nonexistent, I told Amelie and Tiferet that I want to finish the trek a day early. If we finished at the pace Nanda Lal wanted, there was no way I'd make my flight. If we finished a day early, there was a chance. My plan was to change my ticket, but I had no idea if and when a new seat would be available and didn't want to take the chance.

They were fine with speeding up (it meant just skipping a side trip to the Phuktal Gompa, which I had wanted to see) but our horseman were less keen. "You, this, hard day, long day," Nanda Lal said. "It's okay," I said. Helmut and Edmund decided to take a six-day side trek themselves, so the horseman were really at our whim, though the Latvian guys made them write where we would be camping every night.

So we sped up, which really wasn't that long or that hard (8-9 hours a day including long breaks). Maybe it sounds hard, but by the 6th or 8th day of a trek through the mountains, it's actually enjoyable to walk for so long. Especially when your pack is being ported by a horse named Ali.

Oh, but man (and woman) makes plans and God laughs, he laughs so hard. And then he cries, and his tears become rain, and then they freeze and become snow, and suddenly man (or in this case woman) finds himself (herself) in a tea stall in a place called Pipla, stranded for a full day with ten Zanskari boys under 21, far away from Delhi and airplanes that fly to Israel on July 17. So the speeding up plan backfired, and instead we spent the day eating local thukpa and drinking milky chai and listening to '80s dance music with these boys in a hut made of mud that began to melt and spread under the weight of the water. Tiferet and I were huddled on a muddy bench listening to her eclectic i-pod collection (especially enjoying Evergreen's "this is going to sound a little obsessive, this is going to sound a little bit strange") when the rain stopped in late afternoon, too late to move on to the next town. We slept inside the hut that night, well-fed on thukpa and warm indoors.

The next day we walked to Rehru, a 7-hour walk from Pipula. Amelie, our strong horsee, our wild monkey, was sick, maybe from the water, maybe from something we ate, and Tiferet had to help her walk, dragging all the way. We stopped for a few hours at the school in Ichar, where the annual picnic was underway (I arrived there about an hour before Tiferet and Amelie). Two of the boys from Pipula were there, Amelie passed out with eyes open, the 21-year-old teachers awkwardly asked me to marry them, and Tiferet led a rousing clapping session while the kids laughed and danced. We headed on after a few hours, on a never-ending walk that actually did end, in a town called Rehru, where a rocky road appeared, dotted with jeeps. If I left one of those jeep, 20km from Padum, I could make it by nightfall, catch the first bus to Kargil, and avoid taking chances. But I really wanted to walk the 20 km, to finish the trek. But if I did, there was no way I'd make my flight. OOOOOH.

No thinking, I decided, just feeling. I needed to get on one of those jeeps. One of the most important lesson I've learned in India, especially on this trek, was to take my Libran scales and use them for good, rather than indecision. Instead of weighing one side, then the other, then the one side again, I learned it's necessary to weigh both sides, quickly, take one side of the scale, stick with what's left, and then take that off the scale as well. So we got to Rehru, found our tent, gathered my things, then I got into the jeep and was off. Just like that. It was the right decision, such a clear right decision, even though it meant I wouldn't finish the tenth day of the trek like I wanted. I had walked from the last available road to the first again, nine days through the mountains. It was better than good. It was great, it was amazing.

And the lessons I learned after getting into that jeep were better than amazing, they were life changing. I met a bridge contractor from Kashmir who took me, in the dark, to the abandoned bus, the only one in town, woke the driver, confirmed that I would be leaving with him at 4:30 the next morning. Then this contractor, Salaam, took me to his friend's guest house where I got a hot thukpa and a beautiful room with a bathroom for a really low price and an amazing four hours of sleep. Then this friend, the guest house owner, knocked on my door at 3:30 a.m., brought me two cups of hot water to drink, then walked me to the bus, where the driver was still sleeping, then back to the guest house for ten minutes, then back to the bus. Such good, good people. I was the only passenger on the bus, for about ten hours, until we got closer to Kargil and the locals started piling on. Just me, the bus driver, the conductor and his friend for ten hours. I should mention that the "conductor" was a very short and skinny 22 years old, as was his friend. The driver was a short and skinny 30 years old. It was the tiny bus club. We drove through the beautiful valley to Kargil, eating cookies and stopping for lunch in some remote town. It was fun.

When we got to Kargil, the bus conductor and his friend took me to buy my ticket for the next day to Leh and then accompanied me to a dark and crappy guest house in the market, where the rooms were overpriced and undercleaned dormitories. I didn't care, I was so exhausted, but managed to convince the manager (Mohammed Ali, no relation to the boxer or porter horse) to give me a discounted room. He did, and then didn't leave me alone until I left town.

Which despite my grand plans actually happened two days later, not one. I called my mom, and told her that even if I left the next morning, I would be rushing at an inhuman pace and would make it to Delhi only in time for my flight. I asked her to change my ticket for the 19th, or the 22nd, and gave her Ali's cell phone number to update me with the changes.

She called me back half an hour later, and told me there was a seat available only on the 23 (tisha b'av) and told me that making these changes had been harder than giving birth to me. Thanks Mommy.

So now, rather than having to rush, I had six extra days in India. What to do. Ali and his friend Ismail decided I should stay in Kargil for an extra day. At first I said no, but then decided, I have the time now, and the next day was supposed to be the annual festival, so why not. Changing my ticket wasn't hard, but it wasn't easy. It meant waiting at the bus station for an hour with Ali and Ismail for the driver to finish dinner, and then negotiating with him to give me my money back. He kept 50 rupees, but it was worth it, and I knew it would be.

Kargil, I should mention, is a town really on the border between Muslim Kashmir and Buddhist Ladakh. The town is 95 percent Muslim, made up of four separate tribes originating from East Asia, Central Asia and Kashmir. Rather than greeting each other with Namaste, as the Indians do, or Joolay, as the Tibetans do, in Kargil people say "Salaam Aleikum." They say "walla." They say "Yallah." They say "Kif Halak." They aren't Kashmiris, they aren't Persians or Pakistanis. Their main language is Purik - though the town abounds with dialects - a mixture of Urdu, Hindi and Ladakhi. The festival was great, a local celebration of all these different cultures, with dances in all the traditional clothes, a horse polo game and an archery competition.

The next morning I set off for Leh. Both Ali and Ismail were sad to see me go. Aside from the festival, they had taken me on a walking tour of all of the forest, mountains, rocks and rivers in Kargil. I think it would be fair of me to say that I saw more of this bus town than any tourist, aside from the Swiss guy I met who once spent three months there learning the language. He wins hands down.

I met a few other tourists on the bus to Leh, one of whom was a Canadian girl who took me to her guest house once we arrived. The Israelis generally stay in Chanspa, so I decided I wasn't going to stay there. Some also stay in Karzu, a few minutes walk north. We were to stay in Chubi, which was about a 20 minute walk from Chanspa and a 40 minute walk to the market. Our "guest house" was really a family house, where we had beautiful rooms in a house nicer than my parents' and ate and helped prepare delicious Tibetan food. I spent most of my time in Leh wandering into the randomest villages, walking kilometers a day because of all the energy I had built up from the trek. On Sunday I went with a group of 6 other people to a town called Likir, where we stayed in the most comfortable place where food was all included. I really like everyone in this group, even though group traveling is usually not my thing. They were to go on the next day for a "baby trek" to some other villages, but I had to get back to Leh to catch a bus to Manali. No way was I going to delay my flight again (though I would love to keep traveling, I have places to go, people to see, and things to do in Israel).

I made it back to Leh by early afternoon. My friend Mailani had bought me a ticket for the next day at 4:30 a.m., so I tried to arrange a taxi service to pick me up in the morning to take me to the bus station. I was worried. For some reason, I knew the taxi wasn't going to come. I told this to Vineta and Mailani, my friends from the guest house. They told me I was being paranoid, overworried. I don't know. I just had this feeling.

I borrowed Mailani's watch to give myself a backup alarm for the next morning. Both my clock and hers went off at 3:00. The taxi was set to be at the house by 3:30. At 3:25 I woke up, stuffed my bag together and ran out to wait for the cab. 3:35. 3:40. No cab. I was supposed to be at the bus by 4. The owner of the house came out to wait with me. "No cab?" he asked. "No cab," I said. He went to make a phone call, which was useless, considering that we didn't have the driver's cell number. "I am going to walk," I said, despite the warnings of street dogs, the distance to the station, and the simple fact that I didn't know exactly where the station was. No way was I going to miss my flight again. "No," he said. Ten minutes later. "Okay, you walk. Go. Go!"

So I went. I walked for about five minutes, quickly, with all of my things on my back. Suddenly a jeep appeared from a side road. I flagged it down with my flashlight. It was a group of guys heading for the local mosque. "Please," I said, "I'm late for my bus." They told me they weren't going in that direction and drove off. Then came back. "Get in, we'll take you to the market," they said. They dropped me off near a pack of dogs, and said, "walk straight from here." 3:55. I started walking, an within seconds saw two bagpacked figures, walking quickly. I fell in step with them. They knew the shortcut. It wasn't straight. We didn't talk, just walked toward the bus, put our things on the top rack, and headed off into the sunrise toward Manali.

We were on a local bus, which is much cheaper and apparently less comfortable than a tourist bus, though I didn't mind it at all. We made it to Manali the next day, after a quick night stop in Keylong. I sat next to a Korean girl named Chakuri, and my friends Tiran and Yaara were also on the bus. In Manali I went back to my former guest house, where I had left the rest of my things in a hurry. The owner, Sergo, was happy to see me. "Aliyana," he said, clasping my hand, "wasn't your flight last week?" My stuff was safe, he booked me a ticket to Delhi for the next day, and gave me and Tiran a nice room for 100 rupees.

On my last day in the Himalayas I walked around, took a two hour tabla lesson, and generally just loved the mountains. Sadly, I also spent a few hours at a memorial service for Dror Shack, a 23-year-old whose body was found Sunday on the way up to Khir Ganga. He was found with stab wounds, and a knife nearby. His bag was missing, and nobody is sure what happened. Nearly all of the Israelis in Manali came to the service, though most of us have never met him. Apparently everyone has left Khir Ganga since this happened. Shimmy and Sara, where are you?

I arrived in Delhi this morning, and am exhausted. The overnight bus ride, on a tourist bus, was one of the most uncomfortable rides I have had on this trip. The guy sitting next to me decided one seat wasn't enough for him. He wanted to spread out. I kept asking him to make room for me. When he didn't listen, I picked up his arm and moved it. By force. He elbowed me. I barely slept, but managed to drift off when he woke up at dawn. I leave for Israel Monday evening.

1 comment:

Niki said...

Aliy. its Niki. i can't find your email address. I'm going to be in Israel august 2nd. email me:
npopper@gmail.com